Last year I had my first post cancer Christmas. I was diagnosed in February 2016 and following initial surgery I completed chemo at the end of September. Contemplating Christmas when only the previous year I had been totally oblivious to the cancer lurking within me was a bit weird and I was more than a little overwhelmed at the prospect.
So, I decided a plan was in order: 1) be kind to myself; 2) have fun; 3) keep it simple.
Part of being kind to myself was effecting a plan that would allow me the time I needed to cope with the exhaustion that was crippling me post treatment. For once, I took the easy present option: all my shopping was done either online or with a friend in direct sales. Amazon and Neal’s Yard got big business from me (For Christmas 2017, my lovely Neal’s Yard friend is donating 10% of any sales to Breast Cancer Care, hurrah!)! What’s more, while I worried about what the recipients would think about their gifts, bought without the hours of trudging around shops that normally occurs, I really needn’t have bothered. They were all delighted. Maybe I had a free pass because of the awful year, or maybe they were genuinely delighted. I know I was, and if my friends and family were faking, they were REALLY good at it. Top tip: hit the online shops – it’s so much more realistic in the aftermath of treatment than days of fighting with the Christmas crowds.
Another part of being kind to myself was being smart about the entertaining that goes hand in hand with Christmas. Traditionally, we have an immediate family celebration on Christmas Day with a day for extended family on one of the bank holidays. This year my sister was only too glad to host the extended family day while my children decided to spend the main day with their in-laws leaving my husband and I to enjoy a rare Christmas Day to ourselves. We then celebrated with our children and grandchildren on another day when a no pressure supper was more than acceptable. Top tip: use your relatives if at all possible to play hosts – my experience was that they were only too pleased to help, your family are just delighted to have you around so let them carry the load.
Instead of cooking, I made the most of pre-prepared dishes – something I would never normally do. But there is a time and a place. Instead of weeping with the exhaustion of it, I enjoyed a day of relaxation and peace. Top tip: pre-prepared dishes can really come into their own for a Christmas feast.
The ‘having fun’ part of my plan was super enhanced by the news received on the 21st December that my bone pain was just that, pain in my bones. Almost certainly a combination of a rubbish lumbar back, aromatase inhibitors, and osteoporosis. But this was a massive cause for celebration as I had had a run of tests looking for secondaries. To have this ruled out days before Christmas meant I spent most of the festivities just beaming at my loved ones. But I am not suggesting you engineer these circumstance in order to add a frisson of delight to your Christmas. Seriously, that is a BAD idea! A better idea is to pick and choose your social engagements with care. I would have felt cheated and depressed if I could have done none of the things I normally do. So, while some things were impossible – an MRI scan appointment slap bang in the middle of an annual Christmas dinner for example (NHS not working seven days a week, 24 hours a day? Yeah, right, that’s exactly why my appointment happened at 7pm on a Saturday night!) try to make sure you can attend others. I picked with care. At this point I had still not managed a whole evening out. What I am saying? I had not managed an outing passed 7pm at all! My first trip was to go carol singing with friends in our local pub. The whole evening was no more than two hours. But I was with friends, doing something I enjoy, being part of the festivities. I loved it. More importantly, it was an event that I could give as much to as I was able but could slip away without causing a problem. It was the sort of evening I could have cried off without causing offence. Top tip: choose your festive events with care – pick ones that allow your attendance to be decided upon on the day.
It can be hard for family to understand that while our treatment is over, we are far from recovered. Christmas is often a time of heightened emotions and while our loved ones are just wanting everything to be back to normal (because cancer? That was so, like, yesterday!) it is important that we are kind to ourselves and pace ourselves well. I scheduled nap time throughout the Christmas fortnight. I am lucky not have young or dependent children living with me so it was relatively easy to do this. I rarely slept, but I did make sure I enjoyed an hour or so of solitude in which to recharge. When this was impossible, I tried to have a rest day between each busy day. This is where the ‘keep it simple’ part of my plan really came into its own. Remind yourself that thanks to your treatment, Christmas WILL happen again and next time you will be even more recovered and far fuller of energy. Top tip: nap time – you know it makes sense!
I found that the only way to help my family understand my fatigue was to be honest with them. I practiced saying no and rehearsed simple statements explaining that I was still too tired to do everything. I was by far the most likely person to demand too much of myself so rehearsing my answers was really designed to keep myself in check. Top tip: be honest and do not expect to overachieve this year.
Come the first week in January, I was able to reflect over the Christmas fortnight and honestly feel it had been a huge success. It was different from normal but its simplicity only added to my enjoyment. This year I have started preparing earlier but still intend to keep things as simple as possible. I am anticipating with pleasure my usual role in the celebrations but will still be keeping an eye on my levels of fatigue. Most of all I am looking forward to celebrating another year of life with my family and friends.